Thousands of cargo containers from overseas vessels are off-loaded at U.S. docks every day. Most of the contents are then transported by truck to destinations across the country. Security checkpoints at the ports are now so porous that a container carrying a terrorist weapon could easily slip through.
Legislation is afoot to change this situation by instituting new restrictions at the ports. Although tougher security measures could slow foreign trade and hurt economic growth, the threat of harm arriving by ship is profound and terrifying.
Congress introduced a bill in March that would authorize $225-million over the next three years to install sophisticated screening technology and protocols at the nation's ports. The money would also be used to conduct background checks and issue ID cards to hundreds of thousands of dock personnel working in newly restricted areas.
The need for this legislation is simple: ports are highly vulnerable. Six-million cargo containers full of goods from foreign countries enter U.S. ports annually. Since the majority of this cargo ends up on trucks, any number of commercial vehicles could unwittingly become weapons of mass destruction.
What makes this possible? First, since containers are stacked so tightly on cargo ships, it's virtually impossible to conduct random inspections once they've left their ports of origin. Second, fewer than 2% of these containers are inspected once they reach a U.S. port. This makes our ports particularly convenient entry points for deadly biological, radioactive and chemical agents.
Inspections before docking are inadequate and impractical, given the current level of available resources. After Sept. 11, the Coast Guard initiated a program to screen commercial ships before they enter our ports. Every commercial ship bound for a U.S. port is required to send a list of crew members 96 hours before docking so we can determine whether any terrorists are on board. In addition, ships must e-mail or fax cargo data and other information four days before arrival.
The numbers are staggering. Every day 200-300 ships arrive in the U.S., each carrying an average of 20-30 crew members. So there could be as many as 9,000 names to screen every day. If anything looks suspicious, the Coast Guard boards the ship for an inspection. About 2,000 such inspections have taken place since Sept. 11 — but nothing has been uncovered and no arrests have been made.
This is not surprising since the government does not have the trained personnel or the equipment to screen for chemical, biological or nuclear material. In addition, there's no link to other federal databases to screen for names of potential terrorists. Moreover, the data submitted by the ships prior to docking is often annotated in a language not understood by Coast Guard officials. In some cases, ships have already arrived in dock before the data screening on cargo and crew have been completed. Coast Guard crews are trained for drug inspections but not counter-terrorism.
It will likely take years and a lot more money before the government is fully up to speed on security issues at ports. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says that increasing the inspection rate in New York to 5% from the current 2% would require 400 more inspectors and over $1 million more in funds each month. These hard facts give little comfort to the unsuspecting driver leaving a port and headed for the highway.
(Source for statistics: The Washington Times, Mar. 16, 2002, p.C9; The New York Times, Mar. 16, 2002, p. A9.)
Gary Petty is President and CEO of NPTC. His column appears monthly in FLEET OWNER.